Summer of Nostalgia: That time when Plymouth was the hub of summer...

Summer of Nostalgia: That time when Plymouth was the hub of summer stock theater – Entertainment & Life – Wicked Local

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The South Shore enjoys a rich history of summer stock dating to the Priscilla Beach Theater’s heyday from the 1940s to ’60s, when Paul Newman, Rob Reiner, Albert Brooks, Peter Gallagher, Gloria Swanson and scores of others spent the summer at the Plymouth Drama Festival performing a new show each week on the stage of a 19th-century barn.

PLYMOUTH — Shaken by a swarm of paparazzi and possibly some booze, actress Veronica Lake forgot her lines in the 1967 performance of “Good-bye Charlie” and stormed off the stage at the Priscilla Beach Theater. The veteran actor, although rattled, adopted a “show-must-go-on” attitude to return for a triumphant second act, earning thunderous applause by the time the curtain fell.

Before landing her first film role in Otto Preminger’s “Saint Joan,” Jean Seberg’s only professional acting experience was the six weeks spent in 1956 on the boards at the Priscilla.

Carl Reiner dispatched his son Rob, to Priscilla in the summer of 1965 to determine if the kid had any talent. Artistic Director James Lonigro, who would later change his name to Geronimo Sands, directed the budding thespian in “Enter Laughing,” the Broadway adaptation of his father’s novel. The teenager wasn’t too keen on the idea. But with his parents in attendance, he aced it and, well, the rest is history. Reiner shared a room that summer with Albert Brooks, who like Rob, went on to be a successful actor, writer and director. Their accomplishments further cemented the theater’s legacy as a training ground for stardom at the “oldest and most famous barn summer theater in America.”

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Dr. Franklin Trask and his wife, Agnes, opened the 240-seat theater on eight acres of the former Taylor Farm. It first raised its curtain on June 24, 1936, a time when summer stock thrived in New England. The roster of musicals and dramas over the years includes “Funny Girl,” “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,” “Catch-22,” “Cabaret,” “The Odd Couple,” “Anything Goes,” “Look Back in Anger” and “Light Up the Sky.”

In its heyday from the 1940s through 1960s, Priscilla Beach, known as America’s “oldest straw-hat theater,” was home to the Plymouth Drama Festival. Aspiring actors trained at the large summer theater colony, staging a new show each week for the public. Some productions featured guest artists such as Gloria Swanson and Lake.

In 1964, a ticket to see Tom Falk and future star Kitty Winn in “A Shot in the Dark” cost $1.80 for the cheap seats and $2.50 for a better view. Winn went on to win the Golden Palm Award at the 1971 Cannes Film Festival for her role opposite Al Pacino in the “The Panic in Needle Park.”

During this golden age of live theater, Agnes Trask ran the boards as artistic director until 1962, when Sands took over and directed the theater for 50 years. He died this past May.

The theater’s alumni included Paul Newman in 1948; Rob Reiner in 1965; and Peter Gallagher in 1974 and 1975. Others include Norwell’s Jennifer Coolidge, Sandy Dennis, Estelle Parsons and Monty Hall. The performers went through their paces, learning all aspects of theater production: makeup, directing, lighting, script writing, performing, choreography and set design. At its peak, the theater housed about 150 performers. The young dancers and actors spent the summer living in 16 cottages surrounding a converted 1875 barn and farmhouse on Rocky Hill Road in the Manomet section, seven miles south of Plymouth Center.

In a 2008 Patriot Ledger story, Sands, the artistic director, described the theater as “a boot camp summer stock apprentice program.”

Longtime Patriot Ledger theater critic Jon Lehman, now retired, praised the theater in 1979, writing: “it has a resident company of young actors who every week turn their talents to a new show; over the course of an ambitious, 11-week season you can enjoy the special pleasure of watching the same actors exhibit unsuspected facets and abilities in a variety of roles.”

The novelty and popularity of summer stock began to wane and the theater fell on tough financial times. Its luster gradually faded until the summer stock went dark around 1980 and was replaced with children’s theater.

A local businessman swooped in to give the beloved theater its second act. Determined to keep the South Shore’s summer stock spirit alive, Bob and Sandy Malone purchased the theater in 2013 and invested $3 million into bringing it back to life.

“I like to think of myself as the guardian of the theater,” Malone said.

By 2015, Malone, who acted in the theater as a teenager, had transformed the complex, adding adult casts to the longstanding children’s workshop program. The black box theater got a state-of-the-art makeover with new sound, lighting and dressing rooms. Summer stock in Plymouth was alive and well again with the July 2015 production of “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Today, vintage photographs and publicity materials — even a 1948 contract signed by Paul Newman – are on display to preserve the vibrancy of its halcyon period.

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“When you’re on campus, you can feel the history and energy,” Malone said. It’s such a strong feeling that Malone said he doesn’t care that buying the theater was “financially irresponsible.”

“This old-barn theater, well, it’s just beautiful to me,” Malone said. He’s just like the countless people who come every season and tell him how their parents had their first date there, or the alumni who reach out to say how time spent at PBT was the “happiest moments in their lives.”

Those roots first planted by the Trasks back in 1936 remain strong. The theater is again a pipeline to Broadway, film and television. Michael Bernardi starred in the theater’s 2015 presentation of “Fiddler on the Roof.” Six months later, he was on Broadway.

“It’s just such a magical place,” Malone said.

Material from The Patriot Ledger archives was used in this report. Dana Barbuto may be reached at dbarbuto@patriotledger.com or follow her on Twitter @dbarbuto_Ledger.

ABOUT THIS SERIES

This summer, we recall the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of bygone times as we share a collection of stories that revisit experiences and events that could only happen in our corner of the world.

This “Summer of Nostalgia” series will appear every Saturday until Labor Day. It’s the Ledger’s way of celebrating the season and saluting our spectacular South Shore. We hope you enjoy the pictures, the words and your summer.



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